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Badiou: The Targeted and Constant Use of the Word ‘Communism’ is Indispensable

Interview with Alain Badiou

Translated Wednesday 3 December 2014, by Julian Jones

While recent popular uprisings have had a tendency to be varied, uncertain or unexpected, they can be seen as standard bearers of the emergence of a new political order. For the Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, communist politics shows us its full worth with its specific emancipatory vision of a dynamic movement with its own novel way of approaching history.

Far from the dominant consensus, Alain Badiou conceives philosophy as the illumination of the present- the voice of a strong concern for the state of humanity and for an active, positive intervention in the life of citizens. Philosophy can help, encourage (cautiously) and attempt to pull society out of its current nihilism, so that the world may be a little less dark than at present. ‘Resisting is thinking’, could be said to be his motto. This radical thinker is one of the most important contemporary intellectuals on the left, and is faithful to the heritage of Sartre. Likewise, for him politics represents action and engagement of oneself, and philosophising is conditional upon an active role in the emancipatory struggle. With The Communist Hypothesis [1] [2], Badiou has revived the vitality of communist thought and once again opened up the Marxist history book - a history which passes heroically from the slave revolts of Spartacus to the peasant wars led by Thomas Munzer in Germany, from the French Revolution (with all the scrutiny that the subject attracts), to the Paris Commune and, once more, the October revolution of 1917. In Que Faire? [3] he turns his attention to a dialogue with the philosopher Marcel Gauchet around the subjects of Marxism, capitalism and democracy.
Today the planet finds itself inexorably bound to the monetary necessities of capitalism, while society is torn apart by a global market of constant consumption, and the world is ordered along lines of extreme inequality whereby 10% of the world population own 86% of the world’s riches. Yet all the while, Alain Badiou organises numerous meetings with the aim of re-establishing strong bonds of solidarity and strong communist organisations. For Badiou, philosophy presents itself as an epic poem striving for - and demanding - justice. Philosophy has the potential to become the collective vision, as well as the means of thinking about and outlining a new type of world society, with a new vision of what politics could and should be. Communism, in its very essence, is the political projection of the things we all hold to be dear in our day-to-day lives.

With your works such as The Communist Hypothesis, you have managed to organise big international meetings around the word ‘communism’. How can associating the freedom of collective space from the dominance of capital and the withering away of the state and of the division of labour bring about an alternative historical process which re-establishes the very essence of communism?

Alain Badiou: I think that we must target four different strategic aims, and in a different order from the one which you indicated. Of course, what must lead the way is the idea that Marx suggested was the defining summary of all his work in his famous ‘Manifesto’, that is to say the abolition of private property. Indeed it is more than possible to take the general organisation of production away from the dictatorship of private interests. It is possible for public benefit to replace private interests, otherwise known as ‘profit’, across the whole expanse of productive activity and all the infrastructure supporting it (transport, means of communication, exchange mechanism, etc.) Following this, the organisation of work at the heart of the means of production for public good would have to be modified rigorously. It is important to reduce and finally do away with the existing great disparities; such as the differences between intellectual work and manual work, between management roles and active roles, and even in the distribution of resources of human life (education, healthcare, culture, leisure, etc) available in big metropolitan areas and those available in smaller towns and the countryside. Marx qualified this as the advent of the polymorphous worker. The withering away of the state as a separate coercive tool will come slowly as the product of the two preceding processes.
Marx also opened up the way to a possible fourth outcome: the end of the political rule of identities, be they national, religious, linguistic, cultural, etc. These aforementioned identity politics will be replaced by a true internationalism, with humanity in control of its own global destiny. It is this that Marx called ‘internationalism’ and he saw it as a fundamental characteristic of communism. I don’t see any particular reason for us to stop asserting that all of the above is part of a strategic plan of action worthy of the human species, considering the point that humanity has reached as regards the intellectual and material means which it is able to mobilise. Capitalism will be unravelled by this plan, showing itself to be what it really is: a barbarous abusive system which is an obstacle to scientific and technical modernity.

In your recent discourse with Marcel Gauchet, you call upon emancipatory political models that don’t rely upon the model of parliamentary democracy. How can we create a new vision of history, one which by-passes the omnipotence of the state?

AB Let me ask you this: where in the world has this thing that you call a ‘model’ of parliamentary democracy established itself, if not exclusively in the countries in which economic and social organisation adheres to the most advanced of capitalist systems? In what the subservient media call ‘The West’. The fact that these countries are those which Marx viewed as the centre of the power of capital is even more obvious today than in the times of Marx himself!
For us, the tasks of of today’s struggle have to focus around uprisings and popular movements, around the formation of political organisations that ought to directly address the international stage, and the unification of all proletarians, who are more numerous on a global scale than ever before, contrary to what we are told. The emergence of new, organic intellectuals, ready to join the masses under the banner of a reorganised intellectually modernised communist idea, and the rallying of a fraction of the petit-bourgeoisie let down by the smoke and mirrors of consumerist capitalism will be crucial too. These are the concepts which will open the way to a third stage in the history of communism, after the prophetic times of Marx and Engels, and after the violent and state-heavy times of Lenin and Stalin. The third stage has been hinted towards in an even more chaotic and, eventually, powerless fashion by Mao and the Chinese Communists in the pivotal years of the 1960s and 70s. However, I firmly believe that we will be their rightful successors for a very long time.

How can a new political thought distance itself from the clash of the four seemingly mixed forces that are the educated youth, the working class youth, the drifting international proletariat and ordinary, precariously employed workers?

AB: I often insist and repeat the following: a new political model will be able to be created on a large scale only from the diverse social forces which you outline and under a shared strategic vision which would serve as a rallying point, and as a practical check-list for the considered support for a total independence from the propaganda and dominant opinions. This is why the targeted and constant use of the word ‘communism’ is indispensable. The enemy would like the word to remain criminal and shameful. For a long time, we have repeated in parrot-like fashion the agenda set out by our enemies (which states that communism is equivalent to bloody totalitarianism, and nothing but), and now we no longer have to speak in such an evasive and shameful manner. Even here, (in France) when does the Communist Party actually talk about communism? Conversely, by highlighting the word communism and proposing through a grand historic gesture a new assessment of the previous period, and by simultaneously renewing the perspectives of the third stage, we can plan the exit from a world darkened by global capitalism, and deploy a thought and practice that are completely clear and attainable. I have been fortunate to see that from Turkey to Korea, from Prague to Berlin, from Amsterdam to Buenos Aires and Palestine, and even from London to New York, that an entire youth as well as a plethora of old, experienced militants are awaiting this liberation, and a new-found independence from the sinister consensus that we are made to think will be eternal.

In ‘Que Faire?’, you analyse the three stages which constitute the communisms of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, drawing the conclusion that we are actually at a crossroads- a period in time which closely resembles the revolutionary situation in Europe at the end of the 1840s. Taking this perspective forward, what is the responsibility of communists to direct the future and shape what will happen?

AB: Who are the ‘communists’? That is the question of the day. Towards the end of his life, Chairman Mao asked what he saw as a harrowing question: ‘Who are the worthy successors of the proletarian cause?’ In the 1840s, Marx wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party when there existed no more than a handful of Communists, at least in the sense that he understood the term. There was the French workers’ movement, English political economy, and German dialectical philosophy, and with all those aspects, he was to form the new communists. We also must form new communists. The task of communists of the third stage is for us first of all to become communists of the third stage and to work in popular movements; in uprisings, factories, housing estates, universities, in big groupings of over-exploited workers, in unemployed workers’ associations, with small farmers in the famished southern countries, or with immigrant workers, etc. It is the ensemble of these groupings, and more, which make up the living heart of the modern proletarian, and communist ideas will be the affirmative strategy shared by all tactical movements looking to unravel the capitalist hegemony. If the old political parties attached to the history of communism want to rally around this renewed start, then nobody will complain...

His foremost assertion: ’a revolution is waiting to happen’

Born in 1937 in Rabat, Morocco, Badiou was a pupil of Louis Althusser. From a very early age he reconciled his political activism with the demands of critical thought. He began his political life with the anticolonial struggle, protesting against the Algerian War. After May 1968, he founded the group UCFML (Union of Marxist-Leninist French Communists) and participated in the creation of the experimental university in Vincennes (Paris VIII) with Michel Foucault. Whether in meetings, occupations, in the heart of factories, workers’ housing, or defending illegal immigrants, his intense militantism feeds his philosophical work: Theory of the Subject, Being and Event (Bloomsbury), his work as a novelist (Calme Bloc ici-bas, not published in English), and his theatrical work (l’Echarpe Rouge, The Ahmed Plays, not published in English).
The 1985 work, ‘Can Politics Be Thought?’ (Duke University Press) outlines the role of revolt in the philosophy of rupture and event. ‘Of an Obscure Disaster’ (Lacanian Ink) in 1991 sets out the historical ruin of the state, while 1998‘s ‘Metapolitics’ (Verso) calls for a reinvention of politics. His more recent works include ‘The Idea of Communism (Verso)’, and ‘What Constitutes a People?’ with Jaques Ranciere and Judith Butler (not published in English). Throughout his work Alain Badiou mobilises the thought of Plato, Rousseau and Marx as much to shine light upon the past (for example the historical events of the Haitian revolts led by Toussaint Louverture), as to come to a grips with current events, such as the extent to which the occupiers in Tahrir Square in Egypt were positively engaged. Yet the assertion which most matters to him is that a revolution is waiting to happen.

[1The Communist Hypothesis, New York: Verso, 2010

[2Éditions Lignes, 2009

[3Not published in English. Philo Editions, 2014

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